Sewing NotQuilts: The Origin Story


Sewing-projects-IntroI got into sewing NotQuilts because I hate the cold about as much as I hate spending money I don’t need to.

One of the things we are concerned about at Chez Peschel is temperature control, but doing so without spending money or fossil fuels. Many, many problems can be solved by throwing money at them, this being one of them. How’s your heating and air-conditioning bills? Happy with them? I’m not.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart as I suffer badly from temperature swings. I’m always too hot or too cold. I’m always putting on layers and taking off layers.

Winter is far easier to deal with than the summer. Cooling off in the summer involves removing layers, but you can’t go past your skin. You can only drink so many glasses of iced tea. You do the Window Dance, opening and closing windows, raising and lowering shades. You plant large, deciduous trees in places that will cool your house, and 25 years later they will start to do their job. You reroof your house with white shingles, add ridge vents, and line the attic with reflective foil. These methods work, especially in concert, but it’s still damn hot in July and August. You just have to live with it.

But winter now, winter is easier. Insulate, insulate, insulate, block those drafts, put bread in the oven, and put on a hat, sweater, fingerless gloves, add a lap quilt and, why, it’s suddenly toasty warm.

Everything seems capable of generating or storing heat. We can take advantage of this fact and make our lives more comfortable.

One way I do this is by making quilts, although true quilters would not call them that.

Quilts are wonderful. Thick, soft, warm, they can be made of scraps so they demand only your time and not much money, and they let you set the thermostat lower on winter nights.

Quilts have a few problems, however.

They can be time-consuming to make.

Blazing Star Quilt

Blazing Star Quilt

They take time and some skill to cut out and sew together, such as the 10,000 little diamonds so your Blazing Star quilt lays flat. When you have recovered from sewing together all the little pieces of cloth back into a great big piece of cloth, you then have to sew the cloth to the fluffy quilt batting (which has to be purchased) to the backing cloth (which you probably also had to buy to get a big enough piece).

Sewing Quilts vs. Sewing NotQuilts

Quilts are named not for the piecing technique but for the quilting technique. That is, you quilt the three layers together with thousands of close-together hand stitches that keep the batting from coming apart. Many quilts are machine-quilted today, but you need a very expensive specialty machine to quilt designs that approximate traditional ones sewn by hand.

Quilts can be expensive.

Many years ago, I joined a quilting group in Norfolk, Va. The ladies were very nice and very skillful but they were, as a group, adamant that quilts had to be made of 100% cotton, with purchased batting and a 100% cotton backing. These ladies would not even think of reusing polyester/cotton scraps left over from dressmaking. Oh no! Poly/cotton blends were forbidden because our pioneer ancestors did not use these fabrics. They claimed that these fabrics did not work well.

These ladies did not recycle old sheets as the backing fabric. They bought new 100% cotton and sewed the fabric together to make a single sheet, with the seam running down the center of the quilt. The edges were then trimmed of a foot or more to keep the seam centered, leading to a lot of wasted fabric. They purchased the batting, 100% cotton of course, although polyester batting was acceptable. They used quilting thread, rather than all-purpose cotton/poly blends. Buying this stuff can run to some money.

Many of these quilts were stunningly beautiful, but they had two problems. First, they were also not very washable. Batting, if it isn’t carefully sewed down, has a nasty tendency to shred and 100% cotton batting can be especially challenging. The batting comes as a flat sheet but that cotton wants to go back into bolls, and if you wash it, it will. Modern batting is resin finished and needle punched so it is more amiable, but it still doesn’t like repeated runs through the washer. Instead, you get to have the quilt dry cleaned and that means still more money spent on basic maintenance.

Second, they were not very repairable, especially if they have a specific pattern, such as Blazing Star or Double Wedding Ring. You can’t just sew a patch on over the worn spot. It looks wrong. Quilts need repair more often when they are used by cats as scratching posts. Quilts need repair much more often when they are used as workshop surfaces by younger son, spreading out his tools on the surface along with the radio he is disemboweling.

sewing notquilts

Double Wedding Ring Quilt

My opinions about quilts come from my father’s relatives. They live up in North Dakota, and my elderly aunts made quilts. These women were poor, and they used what they had. They did not make art quilts. They made utility quilts. They wanted those quilts to work hard, be warm, and still be as pretty as possible. My Aunt Gloria told me that she made polyester pantsuits for herself and other women, saved the scraps from the dressmaking, and made quilts out of that polyester double knit. A traditional quilter today would have the vapors at the concept of using polyester double knit, yet what is more traditional, more authentic, than using up the scrap fabric that you have laying around?

As a side note, a part-time missionary once told me that polyester was the best fabric ever as you could wash it on rocks in the stream and it still looked great! Polyester double knit wears like iron, the colors never, ever fade, and it’s also very warm.

fleece robe

We make other items out of scrap fabric, including Younger Son’s bathrobe

The washability of quilts is an important point for me. My kids are older now. They no longer throw up or release any other body fluids onto the bedding. Younger son was allergic to dust mites. Every bit of his bedding had to be washed weekly in hot water so he didn’t cough all night long. I have high standards for bedding as a result, and I don’t like anything that won’t put up with a weekly run through the washer in scalding water. Many quilts won’t tolerate this. They wear out and they fade like crazy and all those little seams with tiny seam margins let go, shredding at the edges.

So how can this problem be solved? Remember that our solution must be cheap, stylish, doable with on-hand materials, cheap, reasonably quick, and not overly complex to construct.

Birth of the NotQuilt

So I came up with NotQuilts. This was a long, slow learning curve and I think I invented the process as I went along. Certainly, no-one I’ve talked to in my admittedly tiny circle has ever made a quilt this way.

sewing notquilts

The First NotQuilt. The dog was quilted separately.

I call them NotQuilts because, although they look and function like quilts and use up scraps like quilts, they are not sewn together like a quilt.

Technically, a quilt consists of three layers that have been assembled separately. The top or fashion side may or may not be pieced of tiny bits of fabric. Then comes the layer of batting which provides warmth without too much weight. The bottom layer is usually plain white muslin and it, like the top layer is used to enclose the batting. The three layers are stacked and then sewn together with about a million little stitches. The finished fabric sandwich then has the raw edges enclosed by a fabric binding.

A NotQuilt is also made of three separate layers. However, they are sewn together very differently.

As I said, I taught myself to do this. I started with a pair of old blankets that were given to me by my mother-in-law, Evelyn. We miss Evelyn every day, Bill and I. The blankets were the standard, cheap kind that you buy at Wal-de-mort. They had cigarette holes burned in them (which mortified Evelyn when I told her about them) and I had to do something about it.

So I sewed a piece of fabric over the hole, on both sides of the blanket. It looked funny, so I started sewing scrap fabric over all of the holes and thin spots. Over the years, I developed the technique of first covering the back of the blanket (an arbitrary decision at first, but now I don’t do it any other way) with whatever large pieces of fabric I had laying around, and sewing them into place around the edges. Then I covered the front with more pieces of fabric until the original blanket disappeared under the new scraps. Then I bound off the edges with still more scrap fabric.

The first few NotQuilts turned out pretty random in appearance. I didn’t pay much attention to the fabric colors or patterns that I used. I now lay out a framework of fabric and then sew all the pieces on inside the framing cloth.

A NotQuilt, then, is made of three layers of fabric, but the top layer is assembled and sewn into place as it is sewn to the batting and the backing. It is not assembled separately and then quilted down. Think of a NotQuilt as a patched blanket. That’s really all it is.